A lawyer representing a Laguna Beach High School teacher in a lawsuit against the school district petitioned the court to add defamation to the complaint, court records show.
The proposed amendment to the current lawsuit, the second of two, was filed in late October with the Orange County Superior Court on behalf of Barbara Joan McKnight, who continues to teach science at the high school. The judge is scheduled to decide the matter on Jan. 17, a month before McKnight’s suit is set for a jury trial.
The first lawsuit, ruled on last summer, contested the district’s action and alleged that McKnight should not have received an unprofessional conduct notice for an incident in December 2010. But Orange County Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks stated that McKnight’s defense did not present enough evidence to prove that the notice in her personnel file should be removed.
James Guziak of Anaheim Hills, McKnight’s attorney, said this week that the defamation motion is based on testimony concerning an unprofessional conduct notice issued McKnight. The attorney claims the testimony describes a former principal telling other employees that McKnight was seen drinking in the parking lot and, when confronted, became aggressive and was sent home. Guziak claims none of that is true. “We said, ‘That’s defamation and we want that added to the lawsuit,’” he said Wednesday.
The district’s lawyers seemed unmoved by the new motion. “It’s all based on the same set of facts that happened in December of 2010, so that hasn’t changed,” said Cynthia Kole, an attorney assisting the district’s counsel, Daniel Spradlin of Woodruff, Spradlin and Smart of Costa Mesa. “There isn’t like new facts that have suddenly come up.”
Kole claims that the closer the case gets to trial, the less likely a judge would agree to amend the complaint.
The district’s attorneys have requested that the case be dismissed but the court decided there were enough issues on both sides to warrant a jury trial, which is scheduled for late February, 2014.
Guziak said the judge’s earlier ruling does not reflect on his intended argument to refute the allegation that McKnight was intoxicated and deserved a professional reprimand. Guziak said the judge had to find that the unprofessional conduct notice was issued in bad faith or as an abuse of discretion. Guziak said that standard is difficult to prove.
Kole likened the court’s ruling that allowed the unprofessional conduct notice to remain in McKnight’s file to a reporter quoting someone who later didn’t like what they said or thought it would make others think badly of them.
“With defamation,” she said, “truth is always the defense. The law doesn’t recognize the harm when a reporter is writing the truth or when an employer is acting properly and issues some sort of discipline.”